LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. (June 6, 2016) -- Here is the text of the Lay Leader's Address, delivered by Del Holley during this morning's session of the Holston Annual Conference.
Bishop Taylor, lay and clergy members, guests and friends of Holston Annual Conference:
It is humbling for me to stand before you today to offer a report of the state of lay ministry in the Conference and, hopefully, to offer a word of encouragement and challenge as we consider what it means for each one of us to be ministers of the love and grace of God through Jesus Christ.
Friends, I am pleased to report that the state of lay ministry in Holston Conference is strong. In our churches and communities, lay and clergy serve as partners in ministry, reaching out in many and varied ways to show God’s love and to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world. Together we are feeding the hungry, sheltering those without homes, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick, the weary, and those in prison; we are leading worship, Bible studies, children and youth ministries; we are mentors, tutors, coaches, listeners, encouragers, supporters, prayer warriors, shoulders-to-cry-on, hugs-when-words-won’t-come, but, most of all, FRIENDS and brothers and sisters in Christ. We understand that the call to love our neighbors compels us to bear witness to God’s grace beyond our own cities and towns, to GO into all the world. The short time I have this morning does not allow me to tell you all the ways local churches, ministry groups, and individuals have found to express ministry in Holston Conference, but, throughout our time together this week, we will celebrate many of those ministry efforts. Dear friends, everywhere I go across our connectional church, I am proud to say that I am from Holston Conference because we are people with a reputation for taking the Great Commission seriously. It seems like everyone I meet has a story of how the people of Holston responded to a need in their area – whether it was across the country or around the world.
I had the great privilege of attending General Conference in Portland this year as a member of the Holston delegation. There are some things you hear people say at General Conference over and over. The most popular are, “Bishop, I rise to a point of order” and “I move the question on all that is before us!” Not far behind, though, is the statement, “Let me tell you a story.” So, in recognition of my experience for two weeks last month, I want to tell you a story.
It happened, as they say, a long time ago in a place far, far away. Jesus needed to get away for a while, so he has gone off to a desolate place. The crowds of people, however, who always seemed to be following him, heard about where he had gone, and ventured out into the wilderness to find him. Matthew’s Gospel paints a word picture of this event that has Jesus floating just offshore in a boat while the crowds gather at the water’s edge, watching and waiting. So, Jesus comes ashore and sees what has grown into a great crowd. There are people in that crowd who need Jesus, and because Jesus is – well, Jesus – he has mercy on them and begins to heal the sick. Evening is coming on, and the disciples being who they are – generally more practical than theological – came to Jesus and stated the obvious: “We are in the middle of nowhere, and it’s getting dark.” Of course, the disciples have a solution to the problem at hand – send the people away so they can go to the nearest villages and buy themselves some food. Imagine their surprise when Jesus tells them, “They do not need to go away; you give them something to eat.” If I were writing this story, I would indicate a dramatic pause here, as the disciples struggle to process what Jesus just said. Instead of joyfully anticipating what is certain to be a miracle in their midst, the disciples remind Jesus of how little they have – five loaves and two small fish.
When I was a kid, there was a tone of voice my Dad would get when he asked me to do something and I started to tell him all the reasons I couldn’t. It was kind of a cross between an exasperated sigh and shaking his head while he told me to give it to him so he could show me how to do it. That is the tone I hear in Jesus’ voice when he tells the disciples, “Bring them here to me.”
Then comes the miracle. Jesus takes the bread and fish, gives thanks to God, gives the food back to the disciples, and tells them to feed the crowd with it. The end result is a theological algebra lesson: 5 loaves plus 2 fish times the power of prayer raised to the exponential blessing of God divided by 12 disciples equals 5,000 full bellies plus 12 baskets of leftovers.
A great story has the power to make us feel like we are in the middle of the action. A really great story has the power to stay with us – in our memories – so that our own experiences can become a re-telling, a re-living of the same story only with a cast of characters and context unique to each of us. Did you know that, other than the resurrection of Jesus, the feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels? What is it about this story that all four Gospel writers felt compelled to include it in their manuscripts? I think it’s because this is a really great story. It spoke not only to the people of the first century who were amazed at how the power of God manifested itself in Jesus’ life and ministry, but it speaks to us – 2,000 years later – as we see ourselves in the unfolding narrative.
Come back to the story with me for just a minute, but instead of being on a Galilean seashore in ancient times, imagine a time on your own life – maybe it was last month, or maybe it was years ago – when you came up against a problem that was too big for you to handle. So, being the good Christian that you are, you took the problem to God and said, “Get rid of it.” And God, being God and realizing that there is a miracle inside your situation if you will only let Him show you, challenges YOU to be the agent of Kingdom change. How often have you – have I – responded to that challenge by pointing out all that we lack, all the ways we are unable to do what God is calling us to do? Who am I to speak to Pharaoh? I’m just a shepherd, not a king. I’m too young; I’m too old. I’m in the wrong place; I can never get to the right place. Excuses, excuses.
Yet, God takes all our excuses and all that we don’t have, like a patient parent, and molds them into exactly what we need for the job. And then he hands it back to us and says, “You feed them.”
You see, friends, God knows. In reality, we know, too. We learned it as children, and youth, and adults, in Vacation Bible School, and Sunday School, and Bible study. Just as the body is one and has many members, so it is with Christ. You are the body of Christ. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as stewards of God’s varied grace. God has no hands but our hands. Go, therefore, into all the world: making disciples, baptizing, and teaching.
The stories and the characters are different, but the message is the same: WE are the church!
Being the church is tough work, but it’s important work. Being the church is not for the weak of heart or the timid. Being the church requires persistence and passion. At times, it requires us to be assertive; at other times, we need to keep our mouths closed and listen. At all times, it requires prayer, faith, honesty, dedication, commitment, humility, long-suffering, grace, mercy, forgiveness – above all else, LOVE.
Being The United Methodist Church has its own unique set of challenges. We are quite a collection of souls. We are a worldwide connection; we come from different places, geographically and culturally; we have a variety of life experiences and theological views. As a movement, we started with a group of college students who debated their theological differences yet found ways to support and hold one another accountable, to participate together in acts of spiritual discipline, and to promote each other’s spiritual growth. I believe that his experience with the Holy Club is part of what prompted John Wesley, in his sermon Catholic Spirit, to say, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may!” Instead of being distraught when we find ourselves disagreeing with one another in the church, we need to remember that it really is part of our Wesleyan heritage. And, we need to remember another of Mr. Wesley’s admonitions: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
When Jesus gave the loaves and fishes back to the disciples and told them to feed the crowd, he didn’t give them any instructions or a litmus test to make sure that the people being given the food were worthy to receive it. He didn’t tell them to favor any particular age group, or skin color, or gender. He didn’t say, “Make sure to stay away from the Samaritans.” The only instruction recorded is, “You feed them.”
That’s what it means to be the church, “You feed them.”
Remember what Jesus said to Peter? “Do you love me? Feed my sheep. Do you love me? Feed my lambs. Do you love me? Feed my sheep.” No qualifications, no conditions, no limitations – just, “Feed my sheep.”
Come on bishop, “You feed them.”
Come on district superintendents, “You feed them.”
Come on district lay leaders, “You feed them.”
Come on preachers, “You feed them.”
Come on lay people, “You feed them.”
Be the church, “You feed them. You feed them. You feed them.”
Bless. Bless. Bless.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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